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Ethics and informed consent

When you plan to conduct an experiment it is very important that you think about ethical aspects first. In this step you get a short instruction on how to follow the necessary guidelines.

What is Ethics?
The term ‘ethics’ describes moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity. It therefore specifies the correctness of a specified conduct.1

Famous unethical experiments in psychology history
You might have already heard of some potentially unethical experiments. One of these is the psychology experiment ‘little Albert’ from John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner (1920). In this study the researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that people’s emotional reactions could be classically conditioned. The researchers chose a nine months old child with the fictitious name of ‘little Albert’ as participant and conducted the following experiment on him.

Little Albert was exposed to several stimuli including a white rat and a rabbit. During his first encounters with the stimuli, the boy showed no fear of any of the objects. In the next step of the experiment the rat was paired with a loud noise by hitting a metal pipe with a hammer. Of course, little Albert began to cry after hearing the loud and unpleasant sound. After pairing the noise with the stimuli several times, little Albert began to cry only after seeing the rat.

Although the experiment is still very famous, it raises several ethical concerns: There was no informed consent (from the parents or the child) and the principle of ‘do no harm’ was violated. (Additionally, the study had many methodological shortcomings, i.e. no control condition and too few participants, namely one).

You might think that it is obvious that this experiment was unethical, but unfortunately there are several psychology experiments in our research history, which violated ethical principles (e.g., Harry Harlow with the experiment on infant monkeys and their surrogate mothers (1961) or the Stanford prison experiment from Zimbardo, 1971). As unethical studies are likely to cause negative outcomes for the participants, it completely makes sense that experiments get checked for ethical principles before the researcher can actually start recruiting.

How do you get your ethics approval for your research project?
By getting it approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is a group of people checking your work. Usually, the local IRB board at the institution where you conduct your research can tell you how you apply for ethical approval of your research. Do not worry, this process is usually not complicated, you just need to be detail-oriented.

University of Basel students
In the following we will describe the required steps you need to fulfill to get your ethics approval if you are researching at the University of Basel:

For the project seminar you have to hand in an IRB-Checkliste, which you can find – along with more information – here. Unfortunately, at the moment, the informations are only available in German.

Fill out the IRB Checklist. You can also find explanations for the checklist under the link mentioned above (unfortunately this checklist is also only available in German. It is called ‘Erläuterungen zu den Fragen der IRB Checkliste’).
a) If all questions from the checklist can be answered with ‘no’, the document will be signed by all researchers and contributors and handed in to the IRB.
b) If any of the questions is answered with a ‘yes’, an application to the IRB or the Ethikkommission Nordwest- und Zentralschweiz (EKNZ) is mandatory.

In case of ‘b)’ you need an IRB ethics application, the following documents are necessary for a successful ethics application:
➔ Antragsformular (Antrag zur Durchführung von Untersuchungen mit freiwilligen Testpersonen)
➔ Kurzbeschreibung der Studie (Punkt 8 des Antragsformulars)
➔ Liste der verwendeten Untersuchungsinstrumente (Punkt 16 des Antragsformulars)
➔ Einverständniserklärung (informed consent)
➔ Bestätigungsformular, dass elektronische und Papierversion des Antrags identisch sind

All documents can be found here.

How do you hand in the documents?
All documents need to be handed in electronic (PDF) and paper form. The applicant needs to check that the paper and the electronic form are identical. In case of doubt the electronic form is valid.

Where do you hand in the project proposal?
Email the PDF to irb-psychologie@unibas.ch and put the paper version into the post box of the ‘Sekretariat IRB’ in the first floor of Missionsstr 62a (or it can be send via post to Sekretariat IRB, Missionsstrasse 62A, 4055 Basel).

When do you hand in your project proposal?
You can hand it in any time, usually 2 months before you want to run your study. The IRB will review it every 1st and 3rd week of the month. Important: your proposal will only be reviewed if the paper AND the electronic version arrived at the IRB office.

How long does the procedure take?
It can take up to four weeks until you receive a definite answer. Therefore, please make sure you are planning enough time for the IRB approval.

Which information do you need for your application?
A short description of your research project, sample selection criteria and special features of your participants, a short description of the study procedure, burden, potential risks, and potential after effects for participants, how you anonymize the data, and information about the extent and content of informed consent.

1 Oxford Dictionary), accessed September 10th, 2017.


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